Craigslist: The Crucifixion of Craig and the End of Free

Monday Sep 1st 2008 by Joshua Greenbaum
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Editorial: It’s time to stop letting “free” be a shield for anonymous criminal behavior at a wide array of major sites, including eBay, Yahoo and Google.

Editorial: It’s time to stop letting “free” be a shield for anonymous criminal behavior at a wide array of major sites, including eBay, Yahoo and Google.

If there was a shopping mall in your town where it was your responsibility to protect yourself from crooks and thieves, whom everyone acknowledged were lurking in plain view, would you shop there?

And if you were a legitimate merchant at that mall, wouldn’t you want to crack down on the crooks, instead of just tolerate them or even encourage them?

The sad thing about the state of the evolution of e-commerce is that we’ve reached the point where, in much of the consumer-oriented side of the Web, current Internet consumer business models have become irretrievably poisoned by the scammers, crooks and grifters who have turned the Internet into a vast criminal network, aided, willingly and unwillingly, by many of our favorite Internet brands.

Those brands are, in my opinion, more at risk than they care to acknowledge, mostly because they’re so busy racking up eyeballs and page views they’ve lost any sense of a moral compass. The most egregious is eBay, which successful fought a lawsuit in the U.S. by Tiffany that basically left it up to Tiffany to pack heat and protect itself, and its customers, from the thugs lurking on eBay.

Over in Europe, the courts are more willing to force eBay to function as a responsible merchant, but those decisions seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

eBay is hardly alone. Yahoo and Google provide aid and comfort to crooks and thieves in the form of free email – the equivalent of a gun and a getaway car – with zero sense of responsibility for what is unleashed on businesses and individuals by these free services. Paypal lends its brand to crooks who collect funds from legitimate customers. And on and on.

What prompted this rant were my two most recent experiences with Craigslist, one of the poster sites of free Internet commerce services and now a den of criminal activity of the worst kind. In both cases – that’s 100% of the time – I used Craigslist in the last month, someone tried to scam me.

In the latest, and most ingenious example, a Nigerian scammer scraped the address off of a posting my wife placed for a home we rent, and then posted his own for-rent ad, undercutting our price (for our own property!) by 30% and then trying, almost successfully, to convince eager bargain-hunting renters to send a money-order to Nigeria for the first and last month’s rent.

Okay, anyone naïve enough to send a money order to Nigeria deserves what they get, right? Caveat emptor and all that rot.

But, in the wake of the utter devastation of our housing and mortgage banking system by an organized, and legitimate, cadre of swindlers who took advantage of people’s naiveté, is caveat emptor the only thing we as a society can do about scammers?

Isn’t there something called a social contract that behooves us to do more than just shrug our shoulders and say “There but for fortune go I?”

To his credit, Craig Newmark responded immediately, as he always does, to my personal email to him about the problem. I know in my heart of hearts he’s concerned, and rightfully so, about the scammers on his site.

To a large degree, I consider him a victim, not a perpetrator, of the mayhem that’s occurring on Craigslist every day. And his professed altruism about why he launched Craigslist – and he’s clearly not in it for the money – is refreshingly sweet in an otherwise for-profit e-commerce world.

But I also have to wonder about whether Craig really thinks that the fraud squad he has deployed at the end of an email address and the warnings – posted all over his ads – about how to deal with scammers are really any solution at all. Judging from my recent experience, they’re worth a hill of beans, and that’s about all.

The problem that has bedeviled Craig the Good and eBay the Avaricious boils down to the slow and inexorable disintegration of the “free” model of Internet commerce that has dominated business models in what is still a pioneer phase of evolution.

Free sounds good until you see what free email, free postings, and free access are able to do not just to the individuals who are scammed but the brands of the companies that end up playing the willing role of co-dependent, in the case of eBay et al., or victim, in the case of Tiffany et al. in these scams. I can assure you I never use eBay or Paypal, happily pay for my email services, and am wishing there was a comparable paid service I could use to replace Craigslist (there isn’t, or I would.)

I admit to being in the minority in terms of my refusing to keeping going back to those mugger’s malls, but I know I’m not the only one who is sick and tired of being ripped off in the process of helping e-commerce Web sites accumulate more eyeballs.

Here’s my prescription for solving the problem, and I guarantee it won’t be popular: start forcing “free” users of any and all e-commerce services to do the following: Pay a nominal fee for the service using either a viable credit card or debit account, or, absent either (and in a nod to those who are legitimately not financially able) provide some bona fide identification that establishes who they are.

In other words, stop letting “free” be a shield for anonymous criminal behavior – not to mention all the other nonsense that goes on when users are able to act “anonymously” on the Web, such as spamming and flaming blogsites – by largely doing away with it.

I’m going to guess that these restrictions – if applied fairly and broadly – would curtail a significant amount of illegitimate business while basically having little impact on legitimate business. Absent some solution, I don’t have to guess where this will all end up: over and out. Legitimate customers will eventually rebel, and vote with their eyeballs by moving their business to safer sites, assuming they exist.

And they do. Look at Amazon if you want an example of how it can be done right – they know who I am, I know who their sellers are (screened and approved), and boy do I do a lot of business with that company. No scammers, no caveat emptor, no warnings about how to detect fraudulent deals. That’s the kind of online mall I want to shop at. Wouldn’t you?

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